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Why do Catholics Emphasize Guilt, Suffering and Living Only for Heaven? (II of II)

August 5, 2013 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Spiritual Life

Q: Dear Father John: I admit I am fairly new to the spiritual life.  But God has been doing amazing things, and I really want to keep growing.  But I keep getting stuck on Catholics Emphasize Guiltone thing.  I just don’t get that, as Catholics, we are meant to spend SO much time focused on suffering! Suffering and guilt…Didn’t Jesus bear the cross so we wouldn’t have to? When I am suffering, of course, I seek God, but in my heart, I still believe that earth is not only a spiritual classroom, but it is also a magnificent gift! Am I wrong to love earth? Can’t I enjoy earth now and experience Heaven later (since eternity is, after all, so long)? I am sure you get my question, but I’ll put it in a nutshell, anyway. Why do Catholics put so much emphasis on guilt, suffering and living only for Heaven?

In part I, we examined this in terms of the truth that sets us free, the need for balance, and the acceptance of reality in its fullness.  Today, we will look at this question with regards to living only for heaven and evangelization as teaching the art of living.

Living Only for Heaven?
Your question also mentions heaven – thinking too much about heaven, thinking so much about heaven that we forget about earth.  You accuse Catholics of “living only for heaven,” instead of living life to the full here on earth.  But “living only for heaven” is an ambiguous phrase.  We shouldn’t live only for heaven.  We are called to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.”  Jesus came that we “might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

The ability to discover and enjoy and develop the wonderful potentiality of this created world is precisely one of Catholicism’s most winsome characteristics.  It is one of the things that has helped make so many non-Catholic Christians fall in love with the Church and convert (myself included).  Just visit the great basilicas, listen to the great Catholic music, follow the liturgical year, so full of Feast Days and celebrations and Sundays (when we are actually COMMANDED to give priority to worship, joy, mercy, and recreation!!!), enjoy all the sacraments…  All of this is not simply an add-on to our faith; it is essential to our faith.

Evangelization as Teaching the Art of Living
The Catechism actually affirms that our faith in and longing for heaven, when it is healthy, should spur us on to be better, more engaged citizens of earth:

Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come. That is why, although we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1049)

Cardinal Ratzinger (who later became, as you know, Pope Benedict XVI) once defined evangelization, the primary task of the Church, as “teaching the art of living.”  That’s the Catholicism that so many joyful Christians and ebullient saints know and love and enjoy and work to spread.  So, I would say, whenever you feel that something about your faith is draining your healthy vitality instead of encouraging it, that would be a yellow light – there may be some hidden distortion either in your perception of what is going on, or in how it is being presented to you.

A sad saint is a bad saint – even when we experience sadness, at a deeper level we can rejoice, because that too is part of the great symphony of this world that God “so loved that he sent his only Son so that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Eternal life has already started for us.  We don’t wait till heaven to receive it.  Eternal life is the adventure of intimacy with God, experienced through the full and proper enjoyment of all his gifts.  Sin is evil because it doesn’t appreciate those gifts and their real purpose.

Those are some thoughts.  But, again, I feel that there is something underneath this line of questioning, some experiences of yours that I don’t fully grasp, and so I may not be getting to the heart of the matter.  Count on my prayers.

God bless you!  Fr John

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published two other titles: "Meditations for Mothers" and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently resides in his Order’s General Directorate in Rome, where he is continuing his writing apostolate. His blog contains questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. His online retreats are available at www.RCSpirituality.org.

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  • LizEst

    Our joy, our heaven, begins on earth. We need to know ourselves well. And, when we know and acknowledge our sinfulness before God and neighbor, and what Christ has done for us to give us eternal life, when we know our littleness and God’s greatness, this is cause for great rejoicing. The Lord’s “grace is sufficient for [us], for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). So, even in our weakness, even in suffering, we have cause of great rejoicing.

    We have no need to be sad, even in difficult circumstances. Always, we are to have a deep, internal joy. The Blessed Mother said it best, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). We have many other scriptural injunctions to rejoice, among them: “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing the Lord must be your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10d) and “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). If our take-away from Catholicism is sadness and misery, somewhere along the line, we are not listening as intently as possible to God’s loving voice. I believe it was St. Teresa of Avila who said, “Lord, deliver us from grumpy saints.”

    • Peg

      …but remember, we are human and even Jesus (in his humanity) had moments of sadness and near despair.
      Think of the Garden of Gethsemene, I don’t believe anyone would claim that he was emanating the light of joy and happiness as He was sweating blood at the thought and realization of his own crucifixion.
      He was fully human in the Garden and He gave us the gift of knowing how to accept and use our suffering so we can bear all hardship while holding onto the hope of our own personal resurection. Jesus had to fall to despair (without succumbing to it) to show us how to rise and persevere from our own brokeness … at least that’s the thought that came to mind as I read this post.

      • LizEst

        Yes, this is true in a sense, but only in a sense…not in ultimate truth. He had those moments of sadness and near despair, but rejoiced internally, deeply, because He was doing the will of His Father: “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). This is the the deep, internal joy I’m talking about. It is the joy of doing God’s will…despite the vicissitudes of life, despite the difficulties, sadness and near despair people face. This what saints have. It is a joy that rejoices in carrying out, and continuing to carry out, God’s saving work because it is done for love of Him…no matter the cost, no matter how many times one falls (and gets back up).

        • Peg

          Liz- I agree 100% with your response.
          The intent of my response is to point out that with God we always have that interior joy and peace, it’s just not always apparent externally. At least not at first glance.
          I think we’re on the same page on this one … :)

          • LizEst

            …it gives me great joy to know we are on the same page!

  • patricia

    Looking for heaven or thinking about heaven I find is a hard balance of living the reality of Christ’s mysteries in our lives and the reality of the sacraments. what is a given balance. I like to go to Mass to be with Jesus and that is heaven all together. This is heaven on earth. I however get bogged down with the things of my life and I live in the world and forget about heaven for a moment. heaven to me is receiving the sacraments and being blessed and in the presence of God. My faith gives me strength and discipline to set my day according to how God wants me to live it. I need Jesus everyday. I thought well maybe I was being selfish to go to Mass every day and receive Jesus but I know there is what Jesus wants. I do not know what Jesus is doing inside of me during these holy encounters but I desire to see him again and again and again. Heaven is living suffering with union with Christ on earth to get so close to him and his mother in everything you do.
    My God and My All let me fixed my gaze upon You my complete heaven on earth let me come to You with confidence and trust. Lord let me love and adore You!!!

    • LizEst

      God IS doing marvelous things in you; it is evident in your writing. It’s easy to get bogged down with things and circumstances in this world and with our own weaknesses and those of others. Saints, when they lived on earth, were not perfect. But, with the grace of God, they picked themselves and continued the journey to heaven, they picked themselves up and started again, not unlike Christ getting up after He fell three times on the way of the cross. They set their faces like flint, just like Jesus did, toward that heavenly Jerusalem. God bless you, Patricia. You are on the way!
      ps. I prayed for you at Mass this morning.

      • patricia

        Thank you Liz I prayed for you too. We often extend hell in our lives instead of heaven I am working to decrease hell and increase heaven in my thoughts and actions. Going back to daily Mass is my heaven on earth.

  • Jeanette

    I think it time well spent in thinking upon “When will be your birthday in Heaven?” This is something posed to me during prayer. We can get so bogged down with the ‘things of this world’ that we can tend to forget that it is such a short time that we are here on earth. We need, in my opinion, to remember every day that we were created to spend eternity with God in Heaven and to think upon what it will be like there. Not only will we be filled with immense joy by being with the Blessed Trinity, we also must remember that we will find joy being with Mother Mary, the Saints and the Angels. Here on earth, we can give God joy; but in Heaven, God gives us joy! Meditation upon Heaven keeps us centered on what is most important for every Christian…that we are Heaven-bound. During Sunday Mass yesterday, due to the readings and in particular Luke 2:13-21, it was impressed upon me about the shortness of life on earth and I made a prayer that I would think upon this for the rest of the week. Thinking about Heaven is a joy-filled experience!

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  • LizEst

    Thank you for your prayers, Patricia. I prayed again today!